04/09/2008 02:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congress Should Stand Firm on Colombia

In the remote Nariño region of southwestern Colombia, one mother amongst many mourned her loss. "The paramilitaries said my son was a guerrilla," she told me last month. "They tortured him, tied him up ... and then shot him three times in the head in front of everybody."

If you listened to President George W. Bush you'd think this Colombian woman (who asked me not to identify her, for fear of retaliation) was talking about ancient history. Bush is aggressively pushing a free trade agreement with Colombia, which he submitted to Congress this week over the objections of the congressional leadership. In selling the deal, administration officials are blindly repeating Colombian claims that paramilitaries have demobilized and are a thing of the past. The main threats to security in Colombia, they say, are the abusive left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and neighboring Venezuela.

Yet this woman's painful story was only one of many first-hand accounts I heard in Colombia about abuses paramilitaries have continued committing after demobilizations ended in 2006.

The House of Representatives' leadership last year said that ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free trade deal would be contingent on "concrete evidence of sustained results" on paramilitary power, impunity, and anti-union violence.

Colombia has not met these conditions. In fact it has the world's highest rate of trade unionist killings, with more than 400 killed during the government of current President Álvaro Uribe --17 already this year.

Advocates of the trade deal, closely tracking Colombian government talking points, have sought to dismiss the violence, asserting that unionists are killed less frequently than the average Colombian. But paramilitaries openly admit to deliberately targeting trade unionists. And being persecuted for exercising workers' rights is not the same as being killed in a mugging.

Nearly all the union killers have gone free. Only 68 cases have ever resulted in a conviction, despite more than 2,500 reported killings in the last two decades. A judge who issued several high-profile convictions told me that in most cases it was clear the unionists were deliberately targeted. In January, a judicial panel pulled him off all union-related cases, without explanation.

President Bush points to the demobilization of "tens of thousands" of paramilitaries -- ignoring evidence of widespread rearmament. Scores of "new" groups linked to the paramilitaries are recruiting and engaging in extortion, forced displacement, killings, and drug trafficking. Eight foreign embassies in Bogotá and the Organization of American States mission there have reported receiving threats from these groups. Human rights defenders and trade unionists involved in a march against paramilitary violence last month have been threatened, attacked, and even killed.

Paramilitary leaders responsible for vicious massacres, rapes, and disappearances enjoy reduced sentences of five to eight years. They have kept their massive criminal wealth acquired through decades of drug trafficking and forced takings of land. Despite reports that many of the leaders are still running their criminal enterprises, Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe has frozen most orders to extradite them to the United States to face drug charges.

Paramilitaries have avoided facing justice in part by infiltrating the political system. Colombia's Supreme Court is trying to break this influence, opening investigations into more than 50 congressmen, mostly from Uribe's coalition, for alleged ties to paramilitaries. Uribe has repeatedly lashed out against the court and proposed bills that would let paramilitaries' cronies off the hook.

The House leadership was right to ask for results. Colombia has failed to produce them. Congress should stand firm and reject the deal.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno is Senior Researcher on Colombia at Human Rights Watch.